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Cold Cases: National Databases and Cold Case Investigations

May 01, 2003  |  by POLICE Staff

The FBI administers several national databases that have played a critical role in numerous cold case investigations.


FBI archivers have been collecting fingerprints since the 1920, but it’s only in the last few years that this archive has become instantly accessible to investigators nationwide. as the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS).

Each day about 50,000 submissions are added to the IAFIS. Submissions include convicted offender fingerprints as well as casework, involving known and unknown suspects, and all of this information has been invaluable to investigators who work cold cases.

The success of IAFIS is driven not just by computer technology but also by digital imaging technology. Digital imaging lets technicians perform enhancements on fingerprints that can reduce background interference, increase contrast, sharpen, and perform a number of other operations that make what were once invalid prints usable.


The greatest single advancement in investigative technology perhaps since the discovery of fingerprints has been short tandem repeat (STR) DNA analysis. Of course, DNA profiles have no value unless they can be matched to a suspect. That’s why the FBI administers the Combined DNA Index Program (CODIS), a database that contains more than 1 million 13 loci STR DNA profiles.

The CODIS database is one of the best tools for closing cold cases, especially cases that feature well-preserved physical evidence and that predate contemporary DNA-gathering techniques. Technicians can now develop profiles from a minute amount of biological material when just a decade ago that same profile would have required a sample the size of a dime. For example, profiles can now be derived from epithelial cells like the ones that an investigator might find on the checkered grip of a handgun.


The National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) provides support for law enforcement agencies investigating current or cold cases. NCAVC also administers the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VICAP).

VICAP is a national database that collects, analyzes, and maintains specific information regarding solved and unsolved homicides, missing persons and kidnappings, and unidentified dead bodies. The database is compiled from reports filed by law enforcement agencies on cases meeting the above criteria. Each incoming report is entered into a database and cases with similarities are identified and disseminated to the involved agencies.


In addition to the FBI databases listed above, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) maintains a national ballistics database called the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network (NIBIN). NIBIN was established in 1997 to combine multiple ballistics databases into one national network. NIBIN includes information on firearms, bullets, and cartridge casings, and as additional data is entered into the system, the probability of matching ballistics information from a cold case increases.

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